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Defense, Depth and March Match-ups

   by Scott Spreitzer - 03/14/2006

So, did you keep up with all the games? This is not the time of year for a casual sports bettor. With so many college basketball games ending, overlapping and starting again, it's no wonder the term Madness is affixed to March. It takes enormous time, effort and dedication to correctly handicap college games during tournament play.

One reason is that new rules apply that weren't as important during the regular season. Depth is one factor, because teams are so many games in a row. A team with flexibility on offense and capable role players off a deep bench is much more of an advantage during a hectic week of play than one with limited depth or a club relying on one ace scorer.

Think about a team that has one ace offensive player. We've seen countless examples where a hot hand leads a team on a string of upsets. But what happens when the hot hand goes cold? Or the opposition has a defensive stopper to put on him? Or a coach throws double teams at him, or deceptive 2-3 or 1-3-1 zones? That player may be forced to pass the ball instead of shoot, which means the other guys have to step up. If they can't step up, the star player may be forced to take bad shots in the face of a double team, which often spells disaster.

Defense is another key component. Teams that don't play defense are at a disadvantage. Cal State Fullerton ran out of steam in the Big West tourney this week because of a lack of defense, while Gonzaga was able to squeak by three WCC games partly because they are a finesse team that relies on offense to run over people. Their defense wasn't awful in the tourney, but it wasn't stellar, either, allowing 45.6, 48, and 42 percent shooting in the three close games to finish 0-3 against the spread.

Another example is Iowa, a team I backed Friday as my Tournament Game of the Year, and all of those reasons above were contributing factors. Iowa's defense has been top-notch all season for Steve Alford. The Hawkeyes came into the game having held their last two opponents to 38 and 44 points! Unlike Gonzaga, if you're looking for a favorite to cover, having outstanding defense on your side is better than asking a team to shoot the daylights out of the ball.

In addition, Minnesota had several things against it from a match-up standpoint. The Gophers rely far too much on a couple of tall guards in Vincent Grier and Maurice Hargrow to carry the load, combining for 26 points per game. And the day before, those two played a ton of minutes in a close win over Michigan. So how much energy would they have against a dynamite Iowa defense? A lack of reliable depth was a detriment to the Gophers, especially in a back-to-back spot.

I noticed that Minnesota senior forward Zach Puchtel stepped up against Michigan the previous day with 15 rebounds. This was a guy who averaged 13 minutes per game all season, good for two points and two rebounds per contest! A good handicapper asks the question: Is this a coming out party for a guy like that? Meaning he is suddenly going to blossom and keep putting up big numbers. Or, was that a fluke? There's a reason a guy averages two points and two boards all season, he's not very good! So there's a strong likelihood he's not going to be grabbing 15 boards the next night, especially against a team like Iowa.

I wrote about revenge last week, and that was another factor in the game, as Minnesota had massacred Iowa in the previous meeting, so there will several factors linked together, which is always a big plus. We still have plenty of more tournament action on tap over the next few weeks, including NIT play. There will be many more games coming up where revenge is a factor, as well as teams playing two or three games in three nights. Understanding the significance of depth, defense, revenge and match-ups are keys to identifying winning spread covers over the next few weeks. And you can bet they'll be out there!

We'll have more on the Big Dance in the following days.

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